a Muslim American from Pittsburgh area who was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI "entrapment" sting. His story is told in the new film (T)ERROR. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs.
Listen to our extended interview with Khalifah al-Akili, a Muslim American from Pittsburgh area who was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI "entrapment" sting. His story is told in the new film "(T)ERROR." He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. He spoke from prison on April 19, 2015, in a phone call with Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz.
Click here to watch our full coverage of (T)ERROR featuring more of Al-Akili’s story.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, we were just about to bring you a live interview with Khalifah al-Akili. We had the time set. He was calling us from the Fairton, New Jersey, prison where he is being held. But he just called and said he was brought to the security office this morning and told he could not make a call that would be broadcast live with us. But he did do an interview from prison Sunday night with Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz, which we want to bring you an excerpt of now. Again, Khalifah al-Akili is the Muslim American from the Pittsburgh area who was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI entrapment sting, his story told in the new film, (T)ERROR, now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun. This interview with Khalifa al-Akili was conducted over the phone, so listen closely.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah, my name is Khalifah al-Akili, and I’m in FCI Fairton. I’ve been here over two years, going on two years, a little over two years, actually. I’m out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
RENÉE FELTZ: Khalifah, we’re talking about the film (T)ERROR, in which you describe how the FBI targeted you. Can you talk about how you came to understand that you were being targeted by the FBI?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah. I knew as early as 2005 that I was a target of the FBI, when I met this one individual in my community, in the local Muslim community. He walked up to me in the mosque, and he began talking some very radical views and strange things.
OPERATOR RECORDING: This call is from a federal prison.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Strange things. And immediately, like, I kind of felt uncomfortable, and I expressed my discomfort to other people in the community that also had that same discomfort regarding this individual. This was as early as 2005. Now, in regards to the recent events with Saeed Torres and Shahed Hussain, I became aware, almost the second day after I met Saeed Torres, that this guy had an agenda, with his, you know, wanting to spark up a relationship with me, that he moved—mysteriously, out of nowhere, he just moved down the street from me and started to attend the mosque that I used to go to for morning prayers. I knew immediately that this guy had an agenda.
RENÉE FELTZ: You were ultimately convicted based on the help from the informant, who went by Shariff, but not on terrorism charges. You were convicted on weapons charges.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Right.
RENÉE FELTZ: And you pled guilty to those charges. Can you talk a little bit about how that unfolded and why you pled guilty?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Well, basically, after I came forward and sent out the email exposing the two informants and my desire to go to Washington, D.C., to—a press conference was established and set up by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. I was supposed to attend that. The day before, I was actually arrested coming out of my home early morning, ready to go to the mosque to attend my morning prayers. And I was charged with a weapons violation based on a picture of me from two years prior, when me and some friends went to a gun range. It was pretty much—it had nothing to do with the informant directly, and that this was done, I believe, in a timely manner in order to stop me from attending that press conference.
I eventually ended up taking a plea, due to the fact that—you know, the threat of facing more time and pretty much knowing that when you’re up against the federal government, there’s really nothing—there’s very limited resources of being able to seek some type of justice when the chips are stacked against you. So I took a plea in order to—you know, to get less time than what I was facing.
RENÉE FELTZ: Can you talk about the impact this case and the charges against you have had on your wife and on your family? She has been deported, is that right?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah, my—well, actually, not deported, but under the threat of being arrested, my wife voluntarily left. This has definitely had a devastating effect on my family in regards to physically separating us, not only by my incarceration, but the fact that in 2013 immigration authorities approached my family in Columbus, Ohio, and under the threat of my wife being told that if she doesn’t leave, that she would be incarcerated, saying that her application was denied. And everything in regards to how my wife originally entered this country was legal, and they found a small technicality to just find a reason, the fact that she overstayed her original 90 days when she entered the country from the U.K. as a visitor, even though we filed the paperwork within that time frame for her to get, you know, permanent residency and then eventually to get citizenship. But they used that in order to basically threaten her and tell her that she has to leave, that her application was denied. And that happened in 2013.
My wife is now living in London with her uncle. You know, in regards to being separated and not being able to receive visits—phone calls are extremely expensive, one dollar a minute for international phone calls. So it’s very hard for me to keep in touch with my family. And it has definitely caused a strain on my family relationship.
RENÉE FELTZ: Khalifah, what do you think people need to understand most about what happened to you?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: What people need to understand is that I was—I was living a normal life. I was a law-abiding citizen. I had my own business. I had my family. We just had—you know, I wasn’t bothering anyone. I didn’t—never advocated any anti-American views, nor do I hold these type of views. And yet, simply because I am more of a conservative in my faith and my practice, that—and for whatever other reason, the government felt the need to target. I believe that people are being targeted simply for job security, that a lot of—in order to keep—you know, to keep the people in fear that there is some type of threat, in order to continue to allow the amount of money that is going towards certain federal programs for counterterrorism intelligence, to show that there is a need. And I believe that a grave injustice has taken place, and not just in my case, but in other people’s situation. I just thank God every day that the amount of time that I got, that it wasn’t more. You know, eight years that was just taken out of my life, and, I believe, for nothing. But I’m dealing with it. I’m having patience. And that’s just—that’s my reality.
RENÉE FELTZ: What do you say to other people who are Muslim and who may find themselves in a similar situation in which you found yourself?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: What I would advise is immediately to reach out to any type of advocacy or any type of civil rights organization, as well as the authorities. If somebody comes up to you and is talking some radical stuff in the community, that you need to be aware that either this person is a bad person or it’s someone that’s attempting to—you know, that’s working for the government that’s attempting to set you up. Either way, you need to reach out and report it to someone. And we do have certain organizations in the community, such as CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations; the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms; and there are other organizations that we do have available that a full report needs to be made to these individuals and to these organizations, and to utilize them to the best of our ability, and also to reach out to other people in the community, as far as our leaders, our imams, if we do find ourselves in this situation of somebody approaching us and attempting to entrap us or talk to us about certain things that we feel uncomfortable with.
RENÉE FELTZ: Khalifah, the film (T)ERROR is going to be seen by people now, and it could have an impact on how the FBI handles its counterterrorism effort. And what kind of hope—what kind of change do you think needs to happen?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Well, the biggest change that I think needs to take place is that the way that they have their informants just—I mean, they’re so aggressive. They go to people, people that would not even have any inclination to commit any type of act of violence, and yet they go, and they probe these people over months and months, and they use money, and they use other things to try to entrap the person into agreeing in any way, shape or form, just so they can have a documented arrest on—that needs to change. If there’s a threat to someone, if somebody poses a threat to the community, then definitely then I have no problem that these individuals should be locked up. But I feel very strongly against what the government is doing with the agent provocateurs and going through our communities. And they’re having everyone suspicious of each other. They’re creating an environment of fear.
OPERATOR RECORDING: This call is from a federal prison.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: They’re creating an environment of fear among the people. And that needs to stop. That needs to stop. If there is some type of legitimate threat, then I have no problem supporting the government in doing what they have to do in order to protect us and to protect fellow Americans.